Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Snapshot from the Past

Found this great image online from Carrie Brown's book, Rosie's Mom. It is titled, simply, "Poor women's food riot in New York." The book focuses on the generation of women who came before the iconic "Rosie the Riveter," taking their place in the workforce and aiding both World War I and the women's movement. Thanks to the Women's Review of Books: A Feminist Guide to Good Reading for their review of this book online, along with the accompanying photo.

Images such as this one are crucial to understanding the impact that the rising food prices had on these women. From a dramaturgical standpoint, they also give us concrete tangible evidence of how the women dressed and what the crowd looked and felt like.

Think for a moment about these women. Many of them - most of them, perhaps - had never taken part in a protest. To attend this, they would have had to abandon their daily duties (cooking, cleaning, caring for children and boarders, working in the factories or at home). They might never before have found themselves in a large gathering of women, outside of religious services. These women were also of a lower economic class; in addition to being subservient members of the household, they were also expected to be subservient members of the community at large.

To complete the picture, here they were being encouraged to speak their mind and take a stand for themselves and their families -- an overwhelming prospect to say the least.

What must it have been like to walk down the street, accompanied by hundreds of women, to join together in an open square, surrounding by police officers on foot and horseback, to demand lower prices?

Any NYC geography buffs or landmarks sleuths out there who can help me identify where they are gathering?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Facts About Rice

After the riots began, the city started distributing pamphlets about the nutritional values of rice.  This was in an attempt to persuade immigrants to replace their regular staple of potatoes with rice.  This was partially because rice was cheaper, but also because, as Dr. Haven Emerson (head of the NYC Health Department) apparently said, to stop immigrants from intruding their "European habits into the United States).

The pamphlets were distributed to schoolchildren and contained the following:

- 18 recipes for rice dishes, "cheap & nutritious"
- claims that rice contained more "strength-giving" material than potatoes, because potatoes are 3/4 water, while rice has practically no water.  
- suggestions of adding cheese, peas, beans or lentils to the rice
- a cartoon character, "Miss Grab-It-All" who attempted to teach some tenement dwellers how to make soup out of bones
- the assurance that rice would give children "practically all the food they'd need

This was documented by William Freiburger in "War, Prosperity & Hunger: The New York Food Riots of 1917."  Antoinette W. Satterfield also talks about the leaflet in her Master's paper for her M.S. in Library Science where she documented public disseminations from the U.S. Government to American housewives in the 1900's.  She noted that the leaflet also gave the tip to cook the rice in skim milk instead of water for added nutrients and recipes for desserts and bread, using rice.

My next mission is to track down a copy of this, if one still exists! 

Petition to the President

A petition to the President:

"We housewives of the city of New York, mothers and wives of workmen, desire to call to your attention, Mr. President, to the fact that, in the midst of plenty, we and our families are facing starvation.  
The rise in the cost of living has been so great and uncalled for that even now we are compelled to deny ourselves and our children the necessities of life.
We pay for our needs out of the wages of our husbands, and the American standard of living cannot be maintained when potatoes are 7 cents a pound, bread 6 cents, cabbage 20 cents, and onions 18 cents, and so forth.  
We call to you, Mr. President, in this crisis that we are facing, to recommend to Congress or other authority, measures for relief. "

(Source: Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars, Elizabeth Ewen)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

First-Hand Voices

Marie Ganz immigrated to the United States with her family in 1896 when she was just five years old. They settled in the Lower East Side.  She was able to attend school but soon had to leave in order to help support her family.  From that point forward, her education came in the sweatshops of the LES and the radical socialist groups that thrived in that part of the city.  It was her association with the "radicals" that led to her identity of an anarchist, bearing the nickname "Sweet Marie."

In 1920, Marie wrote and published a fascinating memoir: Rebels: Into Anarchy -- And Out Again.  It's available online in its complete form and I highly recommend.  Not only does it provide a vibrant image of the LES in the early part of the 20th century but it's a strong female voice that deserves a wider audience.

In most of the articles that describe the events of February 20, 1917 - the day that a group of 400 women marched to City Hall to demand action from the Mayor - it is reported that the police asked Marie Ganz to tell the crowd to go home (they allowed her to speak in Yiddish) and that they could send representation the next day.  Instead, an angry crowd renewed its cries of "Give us bread!"  This apparent defiance of police orders led to her arrest (though hundreds of women protested immediately for her release - and it worked).  It paints of picture of Ms. Ganz as an antagonistic agitator.  (It is important to note, that at this point, she had already been arrested once.)  Nonetheless, when I read Rebels, in the chapter "Hunger," I was only mildly surprised to hear a different story:

"...from the steps I addressed the crowd in Yiddish, telling them to return to their homes and be patient for a day longer.  But they grew more and more excited as I spoke, and the officers must have thought I was trying to incite a riot, for a policeman stepped up to me, laid hold of my arm, and said quietly, "Miss Ganz, Captain Dwyer has ordered me to arrest you."

I wonder - is the very different story captured in the papers the "truth"?  Or was it distorted through language barrier?  Class barrier?  Gender barrier?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Lessons from the Forward

I have been reading the book How We Lived by Irving Howe and Kenneth Libo, thanks to actor Katy Rubin who leant me her copy.  

What a treasure trove!

I have taken copious notes but wanted to share this particular gem from The Forward, July 25, 1915:

4 Rules for Women
1) Don't say "I have nothing to worry about" just because you've already got a husband.
2) If your husband likes gefilte fish, don't shove fried fish down his throat and say: "You dope; you don't know what good is."
3) Don't neglect the cleanliness of your house and clothes just because your nextdooreker does it.
4)  If you've been cursed with growths of hair on your throat, cheeks or upper lip...don't forget that makes a bad impression.  Go immediately to your druggist and for one dollar buy Wonderstone.

Sound advice!